Monthly Archives: June 2009

Commitment and the future


Robert Twigger’s book, Angry White Pyjamas, is an old favourite of mine. I read, and re-read, it many times back in the period when I was starting to feel stifled in the small mid-Wales town where I spent much of my twenties.

In the book, he relates how he was working as an English teacher in Japan, about to turn thirty, out of shape, and going nowhere fast. His response was to sign up for a year-long intensive Aikido course with the Tokyo riot police, which would get him out of his rut, get him in shape, and qualify him as an instructor. Reading that book – along with watching The Matrix – is probably what got me back into studying taijiquan. It also got me thinking about my own imminent thirtieth birthday, and what was happening in my own life.

A couple of years later, I was in Asia. A lot has happened since then, and I’m now contemplating my fortieth birthday.

Twigger, who now lives in Cairo, has his own blog, and I’ve just read his latest post: How Much Talent Do You Have?. It’s interesting enough, but he stops just when he reaches the most important point:

The main thing is: practise as if your life depends on it. The original impulse to learn is a survival instinct. You learn in order to survive better. Therefore if you can con yourself somehow that your very survival is at stake then you will learn very much faster. One way is to do it intensively, focusing to the exclusion of everything else.

That’s the hard part, though. I was discussing this with S. recently: it’s very difficult to study martial arts and meditation seriously and commit yourself to your job and have a successful romantic relationship. There just isn’t enough time and energy to do them all well. Something’s got to give, and for most people it has to be the martial arts and meditation because they, we, put a very high value on having a job and being part of a couple. It’s very hard indeed to walk away from those.

I had the opportunity to do it, a few years ago. I had a lot of savings and didn’t need to work – but I opted to go back to grad school for my MBA instead.

Still, the idea has popped into my mind again. As I’ve mentioned, I have been doing a bit of research out in the Chinese countryside, looking into how mobile phones and the internet could be used to help rural development. However, though I set out to see if we geeks could help the farmers become more like us, I find myself wondering whether we shouldn’t be seeking to become more like them. After all, they can feed themselves, and if the internet vanished tomorrow, it wouldn’t hurt them: they have the skills to survive. I, on the other hand, would be screwed. I’m an e-commerce guy; what other valuable skills do I have that could be traded for food and shelter once peak oil arrives, and the internet has to compete with other essential energy needs? Fortunately, the day won’t come for a while yet, so I have time to prepare.

I’m thinking, as a result, of emulating Twigger. I could work one more year, save more money, and then switch to part-time work that would cover food and rent. Then, I could spend a year training hard, almost full-time, in yiquan, baguazhang, qigong and Chan meditation. The aim would be to be qualified to teach by the end of that year. I could also get some basic grounding in TCM. I wonder if anyone would pay me to write a book about it…

Circular Thoughts


S. and I went out for dinner in Nanluoguxiang on Friday night to catch up. She’s working hard on her baguazhang and meditation, with only a few forms left to learn before she’s mastered her teacher’s full repertoire. She’s indefatigable, training for hours almost every day. Her meditation and qigong are progressing by leaps and bounds as well. It helps that’s she’s fluent in Mandarin, of course; she hangs out socially with her Chinese kungfu brothers and sisters as well as training with them. Heh. Later on, we were walking near the Drum Tower, looking for a taxi after watching some Mongolian throat singers in a small restored siheyuan, we passed a local hutong-dweller in shorts and vest, taking a swan for a walk. As you do. This is why I love living in Beijing.

I had a good yiquan class yesterday. I’ve not been for a while – mostly because work has left me feeling so drained that I’ve just been sleeping when I get free time! Anyhow, Master Yao gave me a call on Friday just to check everything was OK – he’s like that, a really considerate teacher. Yesterday, there were all new faces, so it was a basic course showing the progression of yiquan practice from health forms to force-testing to push-hands; good to review. When it came to the tui shou, it was interesting to practice with the new-comers. There was a fair spread of ages, and most of them were clearly physically quite strong, but they were really stiff – and I realized that’s how I was when I started. I actually seem to have learned something, and am much more relaxed than a year ago!

During the session, I also found that the yiquan ‘friction stepping‘ finally clicked; I could feel that I was getting the isometric tension pretty much right.

Anyway, it got me thinking. I deliberately stopped training baguazhang entirely last winter, because I could see that the yiquan was giving me insights into the neijia methodology that I’d never got from my taiji or bagua classes. I decided to focus entirely on yiquan until I knew enough to apply these techniques back into the other styles. I don’t think there’s any conflict there – I think it was Tim Cartmell who, in Jess O’Brien’s Neijiaquan, points out that once you’ve understood the principles, there’s no real difference between the styles. The more I learn, the more my own thoughts go that way. (And the more often I re-read that book, the more I realize how much wisdom it contains!)

So, talking to S. made me think that maybe it’s time to think about getting back into the bagua again. By chance, Liu Jing Ru’s disciple Kong Cheng called me the other day as well; he’s back from Europe, so we’re going to meet for lunch soon. That seems to confirm that the time is right to begin circle-walking again! I’ll talk it over with him. I think I need to attend classes where there are other foreign students. Unlike S, I don’t speak good Mandarin, so although my Chinese fellow-students (for example at Master Yao’s academy) are very friendly and supportive, I’m not able to chill out and socialize with them – and I’m beginning to really feel that lack. Hopefully he’ll be able to make some suggestions.

With that all on my mind, after yesterday’s yiquan class I headed to Ditan Park, and spent a while going through the bagua Eight Mother Palms as static qigong – just holding each position for a while on either side, and treating it as I would yiquan’s zhan zhuang. I got some interesting results, noting where my weight was, where felt stretched, where there was a strain… I missed all this subtle feedback when I simply trained by walking. Hmmm. Well, watch this space.

The Druids’ prayer

I wrote a few posts ago about the Druids, and in talking about modern Welsh Druidry I’d like to give you an idea of where I’m coming from – because, frankly, this just makes my hair stand on end in awe. This is the ceremony for choosing the Welsh nation’s best poet. Turn the volume up, and watch:

The phone rings once


Time was, the phone on my desk rang once and once only. I looked at it. The phone on my colleague’s desk rang once, and once only. I looked at it. I picked up my phone and dialled a number. “Have the phones in your department been ringing once, and once only?”.

“Yes, how did you know? Strange, isn’t it?”.

I picked up my sword, and went to war.

Metaphorically, that is. Actually, I dialled another number and said, “Look out, we’re being war-dialled“, and called in the super-sysadmin heavy cavalry.

Most of you are not Facebook-friends with me. The few who are may have seen this exchange:

Emlyn Now I’m a lecturer with an MBA. There’s something wrong with this picture.
32 minutes ago · Comment · LikeUnlike

[Redacted] at 21:51 on 15 June
the backgroun? ;p

Emlyn at 21:55 on 15 June
Heh, the paranoia was professional, not personal 😀
Write a comment…

Emlyn My Information Systems class today reminds me that I used to be a super-paranoid Linux sysadmin with a sideline in martial arts.
33 minutes ago · Comment · Like


I used to be a warrior. As a sysadmin, you’re out there alone, riding that digital pony around the boundaries of your turf, you against the bad guys, ain’t that the truth. You depend entirely on your skills, your knowledge, your ability to sense that there’s something wrong with an FTP or SMTP entry in your logs, or a login attempt that’s failed a few times too many. This isn’t some kind of heroic fantasy, it’s a cold, prosaic truth: let the bad guys get inside your firewall and it’s a very expensive cleanup job you’ve got on your hands. I used to do that, and (to the best of my knowledge) my servers were never compromised. Within months of my leaving, they were down, because my successor wasn’t paranoid enough….

Now I’ve got an MBA. The way things are these days… well, don’t get me started. Let’s just put it this way, I kind of miss those days and nights when I patrolled the digital palisades, me against the bad guys,,,

Category: Martial Arts


Today’s Independent (a UK broadsheet) has a very nice article describing a 10-day Vipassana retreat.

The retreat was run by the Goenka Foundation; this is the same movement whose retreats I’ve attended on two occasions, both times at the Dhamma Kamala centre in Thailand.

The article describes the course in a way that mirrors my own experience:

Prolonged and uninterrupted self-observation has an interesting effect. As intended, knots of unhappiness or disquiet are soon revealed; if you’re lucky, and if you don’t shy away from them, over the hours and days they can slowly start to loosen, and perhaps even begin to unravel completely. It’s far from easy though.


The second day will be tough; the mind will rebel at such sudden curtailment. The sixth day too will be difficult.

That was how I found it! It was on the sixth day that I had a real breakthrough on my first course, which the article also describes:

Prolonged and uninterrupted self-observation has an interesting effect. As intended, knots of unhappiness or disquiet are soon revealed; if you’re lucky, and if you don’t shy away from them, over the hours and days they can slowly start to loosen, and perhaps even begin to unravel completely.

That’s the great thing about these courses – they don’t ask you to take anything for granted, or to have faith in anything. They simply teach techniques, tell you what will happen if you try them, and invite you to have a go. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t lsot anything, because you’re not required to pay. I found that the techniques produced exactly the results that had been described, and it did totally change my life. As the article says:

Some of the students I talk to describe the feeling as having undergone a deep cleansing, a re-evaluation of their priorities, even a rebooting of the system.

I haven’t maintained my discipline of daily sitting meditation – but I do try to incorporate the awareness of what’s happening right now, particularly the focus on breathing, in my everyday life.

I’m glad to see articles like this in the mainstream press. As the author mentions, there’s a tremendous ignorance and suspicion of meditation in British culture, which is a huge pity. I hope this article is widely read! Here’s the link again.


One of the comments on the Independent’s site says

As a Buddhist and someone who practices meditation every day, Tom Darling’s experience seems to me to be a bit like learning to swim by jumping overboard. Some may make it, many will drown. Not the best approach really.

Well, perhaps. When I first attended one of these 10-day retreats, I’d never practiced meditation before. In fact, that was the whole purpose of going on retreat. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones, but I had a very profound experience which I think was totally due to the intensity of the course; if I had begun by attending two hours a week I would never have achieved the insights that I did. So the retreat totally worked for me.

Called by dragons


As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I’m working on a research project in the Chinese countryside, way out in rural Hebei. I went back this weekend for a second survey, which didn’t exactly go as planned, but that’s another story. Suffice to say, I decided that I needed to review my expectations and questionnaire, and instead of conducting surveys, had a free morning.

I got up fairly early – early for a city slicker like myself, though the farmers were up much earlier, of course! My Chinese friend, Winser, who was helping me with translation, had gone off to practice his Chen taijiquan. I went to the northwest corner of the village to do a few yiquan standing exercises.

Here’s the spot:

To give it some context, this spot is a few paces behind where I stood when I was taking this picture (on my first visit, back in the winter):

The village walls, cornfields, and goats!<

In other words, there are the village walls, then the field, and then the sharp drop into the hollow where I did the zhan zhuang, falling away towards the river bed, and then the ground rises towards the mountain.

So anyway, I was working on the zhan zhuang, and feeling pretty comfortable and relaxed. As I settled into it, I was aware of the clean air, of the birdsong and grasshoppers, and slowly my mind became clear and still. And then something odd happened: I began to hear chanting. It was clear, but I couldn’t quite place where it was coming from. It seemed to last for a minute, and was several voices, in some language that didn’t seem to be Chinese or Sanskrit/Pali, but more… well it seemed Mongolian, though I’m not sure why I would think that. As I started to look around, trying to place it, it abruptly cut off. I stayed there for a while longer, but didn’t hear it again.

I’d walked around the whole area before I’d started the zhan zhuang, and there were a couple of individual farmers nearby in their fields, but no groups. It wasn’t amplified music, such as from a radio – and there are few enough of those in the village anyway.

Now, I’m not sure that I would even credit myself as even “a minor precognitive” – generally speaking, I don’t do psychic. However, even I have had my moments. During my teen years, I found that I when I was shaking dice, if I visualized the result I wanted I would usually get it – which was a great asset in board games! I’ve had my precog moments as well, though I probably wouldn’t need two hands to count them; these are moments when I simply knew that something would happen – usually jobs, once knowing that I was going to live in a place that I hadn’t ever visited, in one case a relationship. It’s hard to describe the sensation; I knew it in the way that day is light and night is dark, in a way where you wouldn’t even consider an alternative to be conceivable – except that it was a future event. Plus of course, I’ve met people whose world is very different to my own (that’s a link to an earlier version of this blog). Enough, in short, to wonder what on earth I had just experienced.

Later, I asked my host whether there are any ghost stories connected with the village – it’s stood there for 3000 years, after all! He told us about the village’s origin story, which involves two dragons fighting over a pearl, and an intervention by the King of Heaven. It didn’t seem to anything to do with the chanting, so I asked him whether there had ever been a temple to the north-west of the village. That surprised him. Apparently, there had indeed been a temple, to those same dragons and Heaven King. It was several hours’ walk from the village, from where its location is not visible. I’m not sure when it was built, but it was destroyed during the wars that preceded the Ming dynasty. It was rebuilt during the Qing dynasty, but destroyed again during the Cultural Revolution. More recently, several villages had collaborated to rebuild it once more. My host thought that to have heard the chanting, I must have some kind of connection with the temple, and told some other stories about it, which suggest that it is a powerful location. He’ll take me there on my next visit, he said, which I am very much looking forward to.

Sorry if this sounds weird or unexpected to you; I’m simply telling you what happened.